Tips and tricks to help you find plane tickets that meet your travel preferences, and are shockingly affordable.
Have you ever had the experience of searching for airfare and finding a flight that works well for your needs, has enough seats, and is offered at a reasonable rate… Then you check in with your family and get the go ahead, only to return to the site and discover those rates are no longer offered? Or that the desired flight is no longer available?
So in a panic you purchase the next best flight. But then wait, a few days later, curious as to if there were price drops, you do another search and bam, there it is - the flight you originally wanted, being offered again, only at a lower rate. Sigh.
To prevent this vile brand of traveler misery, we're going to help you beat this convoluted system, and score flights that not only meet your day and time preferences, but also don’t make your bank account shrivel in fear.
Use a private browser when searching.
A strange and screwed up phenomenon that sometimes happens with online searches, specifically for flights, is that your search history is tracked, and for whatever reason the situation outlined above happens. Flights you’re interested in don’t consistently appear, and the rates seem to sporadically change.
To create a more consistent search experience, use a private (or “incognito”) browser window so your search activity can’t be tracked. It’s best to pull up a new private window for each search.
Search on the ideal day.
There is an odd, ever-changing algorithm that impacts the best time to buy domestic and international flights. Luckily, CheapAir.com is on it and offers great info for when to buy.
Currently, the prime-booking window for most domestic flights is around 20-120 days before your desired date of departure. You might still see some rate changes during this time but the shift will be minimal.
This range gets more specific when you narrow it down to the season you’ll be flying. For flights departing in Winter, try to book about 60 days in advance, Spring is 90 days in advance, Summer is about 50 days, and Fall is around 80 days in advance.
And then there’s international travel...
Here’s a recap of CheapAir.com ‘s findings...
Canada: Buy 66 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is October.
Mexico and Central America: Buy 70 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is September.
Caribbean: Buy 207 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is January.
South America: Buy 110 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is February.
South Pacific: Buy 197 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is May.
Asia: Buy 120 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is November.
Europe: Buy 160 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is March.
Africa and Middle East: Buy 199 days in advance. Cheapest month to travel here is February.
Search for a range of dates, or look at rates for the entire month.
Many third-party sites, and airline websites, let you compare fares for the few days before and after your selected dates, or will show you rates for the entire month (our favorite option.)
For example, let’s say your ideal day to fly out is a Sunday, but you have some flexibility. So you use the grid feature on a site like SkyScanner that allows you to compare rates for various days, and find that if you fly out on Tuesday instead of Sunday, you’ll be saving $600 in airfare for a family of four. This savings might just convince you to switch up your day of departure. Next, do the same type of search for your return.
Tip: Flights leaving Tuesday or Wednesday are often the most affordable, while Sunday is the most expensive.
Compare the rates on at least two third-party sites, with the rates on the airline’s website.
While you’ll usually find pretty similar rates across sites like SkyScanner, Momondo and Travelocity, it can be worth your time to compare flights across these sites, as occasionally, a great flight on one site might not show up on another.
Once you’ve found one or two ideal flights, compare the rate on the third-party site with the rate on the airline’s website. Sometimes airlines offer a special promotion or complimentary add-ons when you book directly through them.
In addition, Southwest flights are rarely listed on third-party sites, so you check their site to see if they offer a lower rate. But honestly, we rarely have luck with Southwest searches, and find flying them tricky if we’re flying as a family, because they don’t assign seats.
However, if we’re flying solo, Southwest is a fine choice.
Consider additional charges.
For many airlines, the airfare is just the foundation of the charges. On top of that foundation you’ll find additional fees for checked bags (sometimes even carry-on bags), additional charges to select your seat, and other add-ons you can select.
While certain charges, like paying $20 for extra legroom, aren’t always essential, there are others that might be a must. For example, if your family of four is going on a long trip, and every person will need to check a bag and carry something on, those fees add up. So if you’re comparing a Frontier flight, for example, that’s $350/person, and a United Flight that’s $375/person, you’ll likely be tempted to purchase the “cheaper” flight.
But when you dig deeper, you discover that Frontier charges $35/carry on bag and $30/ checked bag, while United only charges $25/checked bag and nothing for carry-ons. Now, your final rate for flying Frontier would be $415/person, while the United Flight would be $400/person (and offers more onboard amenities.)
It pays to research how airlines might nickel and dime you before booking. (Spirit Airlines is notorious for their litany of fees.)
Make sure you have ample transfer time, if you won’t be on a direct flight.
The anxiety that courses through a traveler’s body when they have 30-minutes to get from their seat on one plane to their seat on another (especially when they have little people to schlep across the airport) is just not worth it.
When selecting flights, we recommend coughing up the extra dough for a direct flight, if that’s an option. If it’s not, make sure you have at least two hours of transfer time between flights so issues like minor delays won’t derail your trip.
Use the multi-city search on SkyScanner.
If your trip will have many stops, let’s say Los Angeles - London (four-day stopover here) – Rome (three-day stopover) – Paris (five-day stopover) – Los Angeles, you can save by booking all your flights in one fell swoop through a site like SkyScanner. But this won’t always offer the cheapest rates. To cover your bases, take the multi-stop ticket price and compare it to the overall cost you add up after doing individual searches for each leg of the journey.
Receive savings notifications from airlines.
Watch for deals by signing up for email notifications with the major airlines that fly to the vacation destinations you’re interested in. If you don’t want your main Inbox bombarded by flight deals, open a travel-specific email account to use for these notifications.
Cash in points.
If you fly often, especially to a specific destination, it can be worthwhile to sign up for an airline credit card that offers points towards flights. We make frequent trips to Nicaragua and Costa Rica and have flown Alaska Airlines for many of those trips. So we now have an Alaska Visa that awards one point for every dollar spent, which we’ve used to receive a few “free” flights.
Alaska also offers an annual Buddy Pass where you can get an annual "buddy pass" that only requires you paying the taxes on a flight. For example, on a trip back from Central America, Bailey’s ticket was $450 while Eric’s Buddy Pass on the same flight was $120.
We also have a Capital One Venture Rewards card that awards two points for every dollar spent. These points can be used for a variety of airlines, hotels and rental car companies. It's the primary card we use.